By Sir Ronald Sanders
“Being homosexual is not a crime. We are all children of God, and God loves us as we are and for the strength that each of us fights for our dignity.” Those words were spoken by Pope Francis, easily the most radical pontiff that the Roman Catholic Church has ever had.
The Pope was speaking in an interview with the Associated Press that was published on January 25, ahead of a planned tour of two African countries, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The African continent ranks among the most homophobic regions of the world. Apart from South Africa, Mozambique and Angola, which are countries whose governments and peoples are most tolerant of homosexual rights, the majority of African nations rate equally with the intolerant governments of Russia, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq.
Throughout his papacy, Pope Francis has advocated a less doctrinal policy approach for modern Catholicism. Francis is a man of his time, determined not to harden the Church’s anachronistic positions in times, which have changed, with a greater emphasis on human rights, including gay rights. In the interview with the Associated Press, he emphasised the Holy See’s position that laws that criminalize homosexuality outright are “unjust” and that the Church must work to put an end to them.
He did not spare Bishops of the Church who support laws that criminalize homosexuality. He said that they need to “have a process of conversion” and should apply “tenderness, please, as God has for each one of us.” Whether he has opened the eyes, ears and hearts of the controlling hierarchy of the Church is left to be seen.
What is certain is that Francis has succeeded in humanising the face of the Church which, for centuries, imposed repressive rules on its followers that, politically, supported colonialism, imperialism and racism. In a socio-economic context, its rules on abortion, caused suffering and hardship for poor communities around the world, particularly in Ireland and Latin America where Catholicism dominated.
The impact that his approach has achieved is evident in the leadership of Ireland and in parts of Africa. The current Taoiseach, or the head of government, of Ireland is Leo Eric Varadka who is the child of an Indian father and an Irish mother, and is a declared homosexual. Many prejudices – both racial and religious – were overcome with his election, in a remarkable tribute to the openness of the Irish people to change. But, the influence of Pope Francis, now completing a decade as a change agent of the Church, contributed immensely to the freedom of thinking and attitudes in Ireland.
Similarly, his papacy has had a beneficial effect in Africa where recent statistics show 2.1 percent growth in Catholic followers between 2019 and 2020. Out of a global population of 1.36 billion Catholics, 236 million are African or 20 percent of the total. Reports indicate that Catholicism is witnessing a “youth bulge” in Africa. This follows the effective transmission of Pope Francis’ message that churches, religious groups and governments show solidarity with young people. He calls them “the church of now.”
In November 2022, during a synodal consultation with African youth, he denounced the exploitation of Africa by external forces and its destruction by wars, ideologies of violence and policies that rob young people of their future. That message by the head of a Church, which conspired with many authoritarian regimes in Latin America, Europe and in parts of Africa and Asia, to exploit and repress their people, has a powerful appeal.
Nonetheless, his visit to South Sudan and the DRC will not be without its problems. In the interview with the Associated Press, Pope Francis acknowledged that in Africa and other parts of the world, there needs to be change in relation to anti-homosexual laws. Responding to the question, “Can the Church contribute to repealing these laws?”, he was unequivocal, saying: “They have to do it. What happens is that they are cultures in a state and the bishops of that place, although they are good bishops, [they] are part of the culture and some still have their minds in that culture. The bishops also have [to undergo] a process of conversion.”
Some of these reluctant Bishops exist in South Sudan and DRC as they do in other parts of Africa and the Caribbean. Having been nurtured in a culture of intolerance, they find adjustment to a new dispensation difficult. Although, as Pope Francis pointed out, “In the catechism of the Catholic Church it says that people of homosexual tendency have to be welcomed, they do not have to be marginalized”. He makes it clear that “Every man and woman has to have a window into his life where he can pour his hope and where he can see the dignity of God. And being gay is not a crime. It’s a human condition.”
Throughout most of the world, societies and governments have accepted that “being gay is a human condition.” The result is that members of the LGBTQIA community have attained high positions in all sectors of society. While there may be little hope in authoritarian countries, such as Russia, Afghanistan and Iran, it is past time for more progressive societies to heed the counsel and wisdom of Pope Francis, who has emerged as an enlightened, caring example of the best of humanity.
I had the privilege of working with a former Justice of the High Court of Australia, Michael Kirby, when we were members of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group, which was commissioned by heads of government to propose ways of reforming the Commonwealth in 2010. Justice Kirby urged all members of the Group to recommend abolition of the homosexual laws, which were imposed on its colonies by the colonial British government – laws which Britain itself repealed but are retained to this day by some Commonwealth countries in Africa and the Caribbean.
He made this telling point to the group – if governments and civil societies had not taken a strong and determined stand against Apartheid in South Africa, and before that in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), institutional racism would still exist in Africa, robbing the majority black populations of their right to equality, fairness and justice.
Kirby’s irresistible argument resonates in the words of Pope Francis.